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White lies (Chapter Three)

It felt strange to be back in New York. Jay had flown back on Sunday afternoon and had spent the hours packing her clothes and other personal possessions, but even her apartment had felt strange, as if she no longer belonged there. She packed automatically, her mind on the hospital room in Bethesda. How was he doing? She had spent the morning with him, constantly talking and stroking his arm, yet she felt frantic at spending such a long time away from him.

On Monday morning she dressed for work for the last time, and was conscious of a deep sense of relief. Until it had been lifted, she hadn't been aware what a burden that job had been, how desperately she had been driving herself to compete. Competition was a fine thing, but not at the expense of her health, though part of it could be blamed on her own intensity. She had channeled all her temper, interests and energy into that job, leaving nothing as an escape valve. She was lucky she hadn't developed an ulcer, rather than the less severe stress symptoms of a nervous stomach, constant headaches and disturbed sleep.

When she reached her office in the high-rise office building that housed many such firms, she scrounged around until she located a cardboard box, then swiftly cleaned out her desk, depositing all her personal items in the carton. There weren't many: a tube of lipstick, an extra pair of panty hose, a small pack of tissues, an expensive gold ballpoint pen, two small prints from the wall. She had just finished and was reaching for the phone to call Farrell Wordlaw to request a meeting when the intercom buzzed.

"Mr. Clements with EchoSystems on line three, Ms. Granger. "

Jay depressed the button. "Please transfer all my calls to Duncan Wordlaw."

"Yes, Ms. Granger."

Taking a deep breath, Jay dialed Farrell on the interoffice line. Two minutes later she walked purposefully into his office.

He smiled benignly at her, as if he hadn't cut4ier off at the knees three days before. "You're looking well, Jay," he said smoothly. "Is something on your mind?"

"Not much," she replied. "I just wanted to let you know that I won't be able to work out the two weeks' notice you gave me. I came in this morning to clean out my desk, and I left instructions for all my calls to be transferred to Duncan."

It gave her a measure of satisfaction to see him blanch. "That's very unprofessional!" he snapped, surging to his feet. "We were counting on you to tie up the loose ends–"

"And train Duncan how to do my job," she interrupted, her voice ironic.

His tone was threatening. "Under these circumstances, I don't see how I can give you the positive recommendation I had planned. You won't work again in investment banking, not without a favorable reference."

Her dark blue eyes were steady and cold as she stared at him. "I don't plan to work in investment banking, thank you."

From that he decided she must already have another job, which took away the leverage he had been planning to use on her. Jay watched him, practically seeing the wheels turning as he considered his options. She was really leaving them in the lurch, and it was his fault, because he had fired her. "Well, perhaps I was too hasty," he said, forcing his voice to show warm paternalism. "It will certainly leave a black eye on this firm, and on you, if the matters on your desk aren't handled properly. Perhaps if I add two weeks' salary as severance pay, you'll reconsider leaving us so precipitately?"

She was supposed to fall back in line when he waved the magic carrot of money in front of her nose. "Thank you, but no," she declined. "It isn't possible. I won't be in town."

Panic began to edge into his face. If the deals she had been handling fell through, it would cost the firm millions of dollars in fees. "But you can't do that! Where will you be?"

Already Jay could imagine panicky phone calls from Duncan. She gave Farrell a cool smile. "Bethesda Naval Hospital, but I won't be accepting any calls."

He looked absolutely stunned. "The…the naval hospital?" he croaked.

"It's a family emergency," she explained as she walked out the door.

When she was outside again with the small cardboard box tucked under her arm, she laughed out loud from the sheer joy of being unemployed, of being able to put that look of panic in Farrell Wordlaw's eyes. It was almost as good as if she had been able to strangle him. And now she was free to return to Steve, drawn by the powerful compulsion to be with him that she could neither understand nor resist.

She had come up on a commuter flight, but because of the amount of luggage and personal furnishings she was taking back to D.C., Frank had arranged for her to take a charter flight back, and she was pleasantly surprised when he met her at the airport. "I didn't know you were going to be here!" she exclaimed.

He couldn't help smiling at her. Her eyes were sparkling like the ocean, and the lines of tension were gone from her face. She looked as if she had thoroughly enjoyed walking out of her job, and he said as much.

"It was…satisfying," she admitted, smiling at him. "How is Steve today?"

Frank shrugged. "Not as well as he was before you left." It was damned strange, but it was true. His pulse was weaker and faster, his breathing shallow and ragged. Even though he was unconscious, the man needed Jay.

Her eyes darkened with worry and she bit her lip. The urge to get back to Steve grew more intense, like invisible chains pulling at her.

But first she had to get settled in the apartment Frank had gotten for her, something that took up too much time and ate at her patience. The apartment was about half the size of her place in New York, really only two rooms–the living room and bedroom. The kitchen was a cubbyhole in a corner, and there was a crowded little alcove for dining. But the apartment was comfortable, especially since she planned to spend most of her time at the hospital, anyway. This was simply a place to sleep and have a few meals.

"I've arranged for you to have a car," Frank said as he carried in the last case. He grinned at her surprised look. "This isn't New York. You'll need a way to get around." He produced the keys from his pocket and dropped them on the table. "You can come and go at the hospital as you like. You have clearance to see Steve at any hour. I won't be around all the time, the way I have been, but whenever I'm gone another agent will be on hand."

"Are you going to the hospital with me now?"

"Now?" he asked, looking surprised in turn. "Aren't you going to unpack?"

"I can unpack later tonight. I'd rather see Steve now."

"All right." Privately he thought the plan was working a little too well, but that couldn't be helped. "Why don't you follow me in your car, so you can get used to the streets and learn the way to the hospital? Uh…you do drive, don't you?"

Smiling, she nodded. "I've only lived in New York for the past five years. Everywhere else I've lived, I needed a car. But I warn you, I haven't driven very much in that time, so give me a chance to get used to it again."

Actually, driving a car was a lot like riding a bicycle: once you had learned, the skill wasn't forgotten. After taking a moment to familiarize herself with the instrumentation, Jay followed Frank's car without difficulty. She had always been a steady, deliberate driver; Steve had been the daredevil, driving too fast, taking chances.

It wasn't until she stepped into his hospital room and approached the bed that she felt a knot of tension deep inside begin to loosen. She stared down at his bandaged head, with only his bruised, swollen lips and jaw visible, and her heart slammed painfully against her ribs. With infinite care she laid her fingers on his arm and began talking.

"I'm here. I had to go back to New York yesterday to pack my things and quit my job. Remind me to tell you about that someday. Anyway, I'm going to be staying here with you until you're better."

The voice was back. Slowly it penetrated the black layers that shrouded his mind, forming a tiny link with his consciousness. He still didn't understand the words, but he wasn't aware that he didn't understand. The voice simply was, like light where before there had been nothing. Sometimes the voice was calm and sometimes it rippled with amusement. He wasn't aware of the amusement, only of the change in tone.

He wanted more. He needed to get closer to the sound, and he began trying to fight his way out of the dark fog in his mind. But every time he tried, a vicious, burning pain that permeated his entire body began gnawing at him, and he would withdraw, back into the protecting blackness. Then the voice would lure him out again, until the beast attacked once more and he had to retreat.

***

His arm twitched the way it had once before, and again the movement startled Jay into jerking her hand away. She stopped talking and stared at him. Then, with only a slight pause, she replaced her hand on his arm and resumed what she had been saying. Her heart was pounding. It had to be an involuntary twitching of muscles forced into one position for too long. He couldn't be trying to respond, because the barbiturates they were feeding him literally shut down most of his brain functions. Most, but not all, Major Lunning had said. If Steve was aware of her, could he be trying to communicate?

"Are you awake?" she asked softly. "Can you twitch your arm again?"

His arm was motionless under her fingers, and with a sigh she again took up her rambling discourse. For a moment the feeling had been so strong that she had been convinced he was awake, despite everything they had told her.

She was back at the hospital the next morning before the sun was little more than a graying of the eastern sky. She hadn't slept well, partly because of the unfamiliar surroundings, but she couldn't place all the blame on being in a strange apartment. She had lain awake in the darkness, her mind churning as she tried to analyze and diminish her absurd conviction that, for a moment, Steve had actually been trying to reach out to her in the only way he could. But, for all her analyzing, logic meant nothing whenever she remembered the feeling that had burned through her.

Stop it! she scoffed at herself as she rode the elevator up to the ICU. Her imagination was running away with her, fueled by her own characteristic tendency to totally immerse herself in her interests. She had never been one of those cool, aloof people who could dole out their emotions in careful measure, though she had nearly wrecked her health by trying to be that way. Because she so badly wanted Steve to recover, she was imagining responses where there were none.

His room was bright with lights, despite the hour, since light or darkness hardly mattered to him in his condition. She supposed the nurses left the lights on for convenience. She closed the door, enclosing them in a private cocoon, then walked to his bed. She touched his arm. "I'm here," she said softly.

He drew a deep breath, his chest shuddering slightly.

It hit her hard, jerking at her like a rope that had suddenly been pulled taut. That deep sense of mutual awareness stretching between them, a communication that went beyond logic, beyond speech, was there again, stronger this time. He knew she was there. Somehow he recognized her. And he was fighting to reach her.

"Can you hear me?" she whispered shakily, her eyes locked on him. "Or do you somehow sense my touch? Is that what it is? Can you feel it when I touch your arm? You must be scared and confused, because you don't know what happened and you're trying to reach out, but you can't seem to make anything work. You're going to be all right, I promise you, but it's going to take time."

The voice. Something in it drew him, despite the pain that waited to claw him whenever he left the darkness. He feared the pain, but he wanted the warmth of the voice more. He wanted to be closer to it… to her. At some point too dim for him to remember or even comprehend, he had realized it was a woman's voice. It held tenderness and the only hint of security in the black swirling emptiness of his mind and world. He knew very little, but he knew that voice; some primal instinct in him recognized it and yearned for it, giving him the strength to fight the pain and the darkness. He wanted her to know he was there. His arm twitched, the movement somehow too slow to be an involuntary spasm of cramped muscles. This time Jay didn't jerk her hand away. Instead she rubbed her fingertips over his skin, while her eyes fastened on his face.

"Steve? Did you mean to jerk your arm? Can you do it again?"

Odd. Some of the words made sense. Others made no sense at all. But she was there, closer, the voice clearer. He could see only darkness, as if the world had never been, but she was much nearer now. Pain racked his body, great waves of it that made sweat bead on his skin, but he didn't want to let go after getting this far, didn't want to fall back down into the black void.

His arm? Yes. She wanted him to move his arm. He didn 't know if he could. It hurt so damned bad he didn 't know if he could hold on, if he could try anymore. Would she go away if he didn't move his arm? He couldn't bear being left alone again, where everything was so cold and dark and empty, not after getting this close to her warmth.

He tried to scream, and couldn't. The pain was incredible, tearing him apart like a wild animal with fangs and claws, ripping at him.

He moved his arm.

***

The movement was barely there, a twitch so light she would have missed it if her hand hadn't been on his arm. He had broken out in a sweat, his chest and shoulders glistening under the bright fluorescent lights. Her heart was pounding as she leaned closer to him, her gaze riveted on his lips.

"Steve, can you hear me? It's Jay. You can't talk because you have a tube in your throat. But I'm right here. I won't leave you."

Slowly his bruised lips parted, as if he were trying to form words that refused to take shape. Jay hung over him, breathing suspended, her chest aching, as he struggled to force his lips and tongue through the motions of speech. She felt the force of both his desperation and dogged determination as, against all logic, he fought pain and drugs to be able to say one word. It was as if he couldn't give up, no matter what it cost him. Something in him wouldn't let him give up.

Again he tried, his swollen, discolored lips moving in agonized deliberation. His tongue moved, doing its part to shape the word that would remain soundless:

"Hurt."

The pain in her chest became acute, and abruptly she gulped in deep breaths of air. She didn't feel the tears sliding down her cheeks. Gently she patted his arm. "I'll be right back. They'll give you something so you won't hurt any longer. I'm only leaving you for a minute, and I promise I'll be back."

She flew to the door and jerked it open, stumbling into the hall. She must have been there a lot longer than it seemed, because the third shift had gone home and the first shift was back on duty. Frank and Major Lun-ning were standing at the nurses' station, talking in low, urgent voices that didn't carry; both men looked up as she ran toward them, and a sort of disbelieving horror filled Frank's eyes.

"He's awake!" she choked. "He said that he hurts. Please, you have to give him something–"

They bolted past her, practically shoving her to the side. Frank said, "This wasn't supposed to happen," in a voice so hard she wasn't certain it was his.

But it had to be, even though the words didn't make any sense. What wasn't supposed to happen? Steve wasn't supposed to wake up? Had they lied to her? Had they expected him to die after all? No, that couldn't be it, or Frank wouldn't have gone to so much trouble to get her to stay.

Nurses were scurrying into Steve's room, but when Jay tried to enter she was firmly escorted back into the hallway. She stood outside, listening to the muted furor of voices inside, chewing on her bottom lip and wiping the slow- welling tears from her cheeks. She should be in there. Steve needed her.

Inside the room, Frank watched as Major Lunning swiftly checked Steve's vital signs and brain-wave activity. "No doubt about it," the major confirmed ab- sently as he worked. "He's coming out of it."

"He's on barbiturates, for God's sake!" Frank protested. "How can he come out of it until you lessen the dosage?"

"He's fighting it off. He's got one hell of a constitution, and that woman out there in the hall has a strong effect on him. Adrenaline is a powerful stimulant. Enough of it, and people perform superhuman feats of strength and endurance. His blood pressure is up and his cardiac output has increased, all signs of adrenaline stimulation."

"Are you going to increase the dosage?"

"No. The coma was to keep his brain from swelling and causing more damage. I was almost ready to begin bringing him out of it anyway. He's just moved up the timetable a little. We'll have to keep him on drugs for the pain, but he won't be in a coma. He'll be able to wake up."

"Jay thought he said that he hurt. Can he feel pain, as drugged as he is?"

"If he was conscious enough to communicate, he was conscious enough to feel pain."

"Can he understand what we're saying?"

"It's possible. I'd say he definitely hears us. Understanding is something else entirely."

"How long will it be before we can question him?"

Major Lunning gave him a severe look. "Not until the swelling in his face and throat subside enough for me to remove the trach tube. I'd say another week. And don't expect him to be a fount of information. He may never remember what happened to him, and even if he eventually does, it could be months in the future."

"Is there any danger that he might reveal some classified information to Jay?" Frank didn't want to say too much. Major Lunning knew that Steve was a very important patient, but he didn't know any of the details.

"It isn't likely. He'll be too dazed and confused, maybe even delirious, and at any rate, he still isn't able to talk. I promise you, you'll be the first to see him when we take the trach tube out."

Frank stared at the still form on the bed; he had been unconscious for so long, it was hard to accept that he could hear or feel, that he had even made an attempt to communicate. But knowing what he knew about the man, Frank realized he should have been prepared for something like this. The man never gave up, never stopped fighting, even when the odds were so strong against him that anyone else would have walked away, and because of that he had survived in many instances when others wouldn't, just as he had this time. Most people never saw past the easy grin to that enormous, fearsome determination.

"What's the likelihood of permanent brain damage?" he asked quietly, remembering that Steve could hear, and there was no way of telling how much he could understand.

Major Lunning sighed. "I don't know. He received excellent, immediate care, and that counts for a lot. It may be so minimal that you won't be able to tell the difference, but I wouldn't put my money on anything right now. I simply can't tell. The fact that he woke up and responded to Ms. Granger is totally out of the expected range. He leapfrogged over several stages of recovery. I've never seen anything like it before. Normally the stages are stupor, where it would take vigor- ous stimulation to rouse him at all, then delirium and extreme agitation, as if the electrical processes of his brain had gone wild. Then he would become quieter, but he'd be very confused. In the next stage he would be like an automaton. He'd be able to answer questions, but unable to perform any but the simplest physical tasks. The higher brain functions return gradually."

"And the stage he's at now?"

"He was able to communicate, as if he were in the automaton stage, but I think he's lapsed back now. It must have taken a tremendous effort for him to do that much."

"As you cut down on the barbiturates, he'll be able to communicate more?"

"Perhaps. This one incident may not be repeated. He may revert to the more classical stages of recovery."

Exasperated, Frank said, "Is there anything you're certain of?"

Major Lunning gave him a long, level look. "Yes. I'm certain that his recovery depends on Ms. Granger. Keep her around. He'll need her."

"Is it safe for her to be with him while you bring him off the drugs?"

"I insist on it. She may keep him calm. I sure as hell don't want him thrashing around with that tube in his chest. Will she be able to take it?"

Frank lifted his brows. "She's stronger than she looks." And Jay was oddly devoted to Steve in a way that he hadn't expected and could not quite understand. It was as if something pulled her to him, but there wasn't any basis for that kind of attraction. Maybe later, when he was awake–his effect on women had always had his superiors shaking their heads in disbelief. But he was little more than a mummy now, unable to use the charm for which he was famous, so it had to be something else.

He had to let the Man know what had happened.

Suddenly the door was shoved open and Jay entered, giving them a hard, bright look that dared them to throw her out again. "I'm staying," she said flatly, moving to Steve's side and putting her hand on his arm. Her chin lifted stubbornly. "He needs me, and I'm going to be here."

Major Lunning looked from her to Steve, then at Frank. "She's staying," he said mildly, then consulted the file in his hand. "Okay, I'm going to begin decreasing the barbiturates now, to completely bring him out of the coma. It will take from twenty-four to thirty-six hours, and I don't know how he's going to react, so I want him under full-time observation." He glanced up at Jay. "Ms. Granger–may I call you Jay?"

"Please," she murmured.

"A nurse will be in here with him most of the time until he's completely off the drugs. His reaction may be unpredictable. If anything happens, it's important that you move away from the bed and not hinder anything we have to do. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

"Can I trust you not to faint and get in the way?" "Yes."

"All right. I'll hold you to that." His stern military gaze measured her, and he must have been reassured by what he saw, because he gave an abrupt nod of approval. "It won't be easy, but I think you'll hold up."

Jay turned her attention back to Steve, dismissing everyone else in the room as if they no longer existed. She couldn't help it. He crowded everyone else out of her consciousness, flattening them into one-dimensional cartoon characters. Nothing mattered except him, and since his agonized attempt to talk to her, the feeling was even stronger than before. It shattered her and terrified her, because it was so far outside her previous experience, but she couldn't fight it. It was so strange; Steve was exerting far more power over her now than he ever had before, when he'd had full use of his senses and body, and his full range of charm. He was motionless and, for the most part, insensate, but something deep and primal pulled her to him. Just being in the same room with him made her heart settle into a stronger rhythm, heating her flesh as her blood raced through her veins, energizing her.

"I'm back," she murmured, touching his arm. "You can go to sleep now. Don't worry, don't fight the pain…just let it go. I'm here with you, and I won't leave. I'll watch over you, and I'll be here when you wake up again."

Slowly his breathing settled into an easier rhythm and his pulse rate dropped. His blood pressure lowered. Air hissed from the tube in his throat in what would have been a faint sigh had the tube not been in place. Jay stood by his bed, her fingers lightly stroking his arm as he slept.

Where are you? He came awake, screaming silently as he clawed his way through the shrouding darkness and pain into an even greater horror. The pain was like being eaten alive, but he could bear that because despite its force, it was secondary to the horrible emptiness. God, was he buried alive? He couldn't move, couldn't see, couldn't make a sound, as if his body had died but his mind had remained alive. Terrified, he tried again to scream and couldn't.

Where was he? What had happened?

He didn't know. God help him, he didn't know!

"I'm here," the voice crooned soothingly. "I know you're frightened and don't understand, but I'm here. I'll stay with you."

The voice. It was familiar. It had been in his dreams. No, not dreams. Something deeper than that. It was in his guts, his bones, his cells, his genes, his chromosomes. It was part of him, and he focused on it with an intense, almost painful recognition. Yet it was oddly alien, connected to nothing his conscious mind could produce.

"The doctors say you're probably very confused," the voice continued. It was a calm, tender voice, with a slightly husky catch in it, as if she had been crying. She. Yes. It was definitely a woman. He had a vague memory of that voice calling to him, pulling him out of a strange, suffocating darkness.

She began reciting a litany of injuries, and he listened to her voice with fierce concentration, only gradually realizing that she was talking about him. He was injured. Not dead, not buried alive.

The tidal wave of relief exhausted him.

She was still there the next time he surfaced, and this time the initial terror was of shorter duration. Fractionally more alert, he decided she was hoarse rather than teary. She was always there. He had no concept of time, only of pain and darkness, but gradually he became aware that there were two darknesses. One was in his mind, paralyzing his thoughts, but he could fight it. Slowly that darkness was becoming less. Then there was the other darkness, the absence of light, the inability to see. Again he would have panicked if she hadn't been there. Over and over she explained, as if she knew he would only gradually comprehend her words. He wasn't blind; there were bandages over his eyes, but he wasn't blind. His legs were broken, but he would walk again. His hands were burned, but he would use them again. There was a tube in his throat to help him breathe; soon the tube would be removed and he would talk again.

He believed her. He didn't know her, but he trusted her.

He tried to think, but words boomeranged around in his head until he couldn't make sense of them. He didn't know… There was so much he didn't know. He didn't know anything. But he couldn't catch the words and arrange them in proper order so he'd know what it was he didn't know. It just didn't make sense, and he was too tired to fight.

Finally he woke to find that his thoughts were clearer, the confusion different, because the words made sense even though nothing else did. She was there. He could feel her hand on his arm, could hear her slightly hoarse voice. Did she stay with him all the time? How long had it been? It seemed forever, and it nagged at him, because he felt as if he should know exactly.

There was so much he wanted to know, and he couldn't ask. Frustration ate at him, and his arm flexed beneath her fingers. God, what would happen to him if she left? She was the one link he had to the world outside the prison of his own body, his link to sanity, the only window in his world of darkness. And suddenly the need to know coalesced inside him into a single thought, a single word: Who?

His lips formed the word and gave birth to it in silence. Yes, that was the word he'd wanted. Everything he wanted to know was summed up in that one small word.

Jay gently laid her fingers over his swollen lips. "Don't try to talk," she whispered. "Let's use a spelling system. I'll recite the alphabet, and whenever I get to the letter you want, twitch your arm. I'll do the alphabet over and over until we've spelled out whatever you want to say. Can you do that? One twitch for yes, two twitches for no."

She was exhausted; it had been two days since the first time he had woken up, and she had been with him for most of that time. She had talked until her voice was almost gone, her words giving him a bridge out of his coma into reality. She knew when he was awake, sensed that he was terrified, felt his struggle to understand what had happened. But this was the first time his lips had moved, and she was so tired she hadn't been able to grasp what he'd been trying to say. The alphabet game was the only way she could think of for them to com- municate, but she didn't know if he'd be able to concentrate enough for it to work.

His arm twitched. Just once.

She drew a deep breath, forcing her exhaustion away. "All right. Here we go. A… B…C…D…"

She began to give up hope as she slowly ran through the alphabet and his arm lay motionless under her hand. It had been a long shot, anyway. Major Lunning had said it could be days before Steve's mind would -be clear enough for him to really understand what was going on around him. Then she said "W," and his arm twitched.

She stopped. "W?"

His arm twitched. Once, for "Yes."

Joy shot through her. "Okay, W is the first letter. Let's go for the second one. A… B…"

His arm twitched on the H.

And again on the O.

He stopped there.

Jay was astounded. "Who? Is that it? You want to know who I am?"

His arm twitched. Yes.

He didn't know; he really didn't know. She couldn't remember if she had mentioned who she was, except when she had first begun talking to him. Had she thought he would remember her voice after not seeing her for five years?

"I'm Jay," she said gently. "Your ex-wife."

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